Made one in Christ

In our last post we considered Paul’s warning to believers in the Galatian churches, ‘If you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another’ (Ga 5.15). And we noted that, sadly, this warning needs to be repeated to every church in every generation. The family of God through the ages has been torn apart by divisions between its members. However, we also noted in the very last sentence of the article that, because of the gospel, division need not have the last word. The reason being that the gospel holds out the promise of reconciliation.

Of course, all Christians are quick to acknowledge this. We, who by nature in our fallen state were not simply estranged from God on account of our sin, but were in a state of enmity against him and he against us, have been restored to right relations. In the single gracious act of justification God has reconciled himself to us and us to him. This is the most glorious truth imaginable. Through Christ we are restored to God. Not only are we pardoned, our record is expunged, sin blotted out, guilt washed away and we are clothed in the very righteousness of Christ himself. And through him also we have the right to address God, with the very words of Christ himself, as ‘Abba, Father.’

We will never fully get our heads and hearts around the sheer magnitude of this salvation blessing. It marks the difference between life and death, hope and despair, alienation and acceptance. But it would be a huge mistake to focus so narrowly on what it means for us personally in our relationship with God that we lose sight of what it means in our shared relationship with him in his family. After all, to be joined to God in Jesus through his reconciling grace must mean, as Paul points out, that we are also joined to one another as his blood-bought children by that same grace. Just as the sin that separated us from God has been dealt with through the atoning work of Christ, so too the sin that separates us from one another in the church.

So, when Paul warned the Christians in Galatia about metaphorically devouring each other through their conflicts in God’s family, he was not simply telling them off for conduct unbecoming of a child of God. Rather, he was reminding them of the nature of their relationship as brothers and sisters in Christ. Just as they were now reconciled to God as their Heavenly Father, so too they were in a state of reconciliation with their fellow Christians. And, just as they were called to work out the reality of what it meant to be reconciled to God in the way they behaved towards him – no longer at odds with him, but living in harmony – so too as they sought to relate to one another in Christ. This meant learning to live in light of what they now were as children of God.

Paul addresses this issue most directly in his letter to the Ephesians. That church, like so many others in the New Testament world, had grown not only through Jews coming to believe in Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah, but through multiple Gentile conversions as well. The problem was that although they now found themselves ‘under one roof’ so to speak, they still treated each other as they once had in their pre-conversion ghettos. The religious and cultural antagonism between these two groups in the ancient world was proverbial. Paul alludes to it when he describes it as ‘the dividing wall of hostility’ (Eph 2.14). (The expression may well have had its roots in the physical wall in the Temple precincts that separated the outer Court of the Gentiles from the inner courts which could only be accessed by Jews.) But he tells these Christians – on both sides of the divide – that this virtual wall had been demolished at Calvary. More than this, he did so, ‘…that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility’ (Eph 2.15-16).

These are monumental words. Although, clearly from the context, they were addressed to a very specific issue in world and church history – the longstanding tension between Jews and Gentiles – they present us with an all-embracing theological truth and the ethic that flows from it. Namely, that every socio-religio-cultural-racial barrier that divides our fallen race has likewise been dealt with at the cross. The family of God is not permitted to replicate the divisions that fragment the wider human family because of sin. We have been delivered from that. In Christ we have entered a whole new web of relationships with our fellow Christians by virtue of our being restored to the one all-controlling relationship with God.

Because this is already the reality of what Christ secured at the cross, it is not merely a possibility for believers who might feel inclined to embrace it; it is an obligation. Paul says as much when he begins to apply this truth two chapters later in Ephesians: ‘Spare no effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Eph 4.3). This is the divine Bridegroom’s equivalent to ‘What God has joined together, let not man put asunder!’

What huge lessons there are for us all in these great truths. Yet how easily we think we can simply ignore them. How relevant they are to the church in our day where the social, racial and cultural issues that dominate world headlines are all too often replicated in our church families, but never dealt with. May our oneness in Christ advertise the power of the gospel to our fragmented world.

Mark Johnston